Sunday, 3 April 2016

Opinion/Reflection: Australia's Erasure of Its Indigenous History

Australia's having another flash-in-the-pan moment where it has the choice to face up to its institutionalised erasure of Indigenous Australians in our history, or keep its head in the sand. Unsurprisingly, we've chosen the latter.

This time, the spark was a Daily Terror article manufacturing outrage over the fact that UNSW encourages the use of the word 'invasion' over 'discovery' when talking about British occupation. The whole thing has gone down much the same way it always does, and I don't have anything to say about it that an Indigenous voice hasn't said better; Luke Pearson's What Was 200 Years Ago? is particularly powerful.

However, something else that has caught my eye this week, as we've been dealing with this, is two remarkably similar stories of Indigenous archaeological finds on government building sites. One is in Sydney, where I live, and the other in New Zealand's Waikato region, where my family are from.

While building Sydney's much-anticipated lightrail, workers and heritage experts have uncovered a site with 22,000 Aboriginal artefacts, and the Sydney Morning Herald reported that an Indigenous heritage group is having to apply for an urgent stop work order. Transport for NSW claimed that the archaeological site was less than one percent of the whole site, and that workers could still work around it, but representatives from the heritage group said that the cache was the most easily identifiable part of a larger site, and that the whole area needed to be surveyed. The finds have significance for our understanding of inter-tribal trade and interaction, and according to an elder in the ABC article cited below, half of the site has already been destroyed. Transport's NSW statement is as follows:
All work that has occurred on the site since the artefacts were found has been in consultation with all Aboriginal groups...Transport for NSW and ALTRAC Light Rail are investigating, in conjunction with the Aboriginal representatives, opportunities to recognise the items found on site, for example in displays or education programs. The social value of the site to the local Aboriginal community is very high and we are continuing to work with [the Aboriginal groups] to identify the artefacts and how they came to be found in Randwick. - ABC News, Indigenous atrefacts found at Sydney light rail construction site, calls to halt work
Compare that response with what happened when a pre-European skull was found while digging a culvert for the New Zealand's new Waikato expressway. For a start, a stop work order was given immediately, and workers were transferred to sites up and down the expressway, away from the site. The press release from the New Zealand Transport Agency describes their process, and I've added some annotations for non-New Zealanders:
The Transport Agency's Hamilton highway manager Kaye Clark said project protocols which the NZ Transport Agency has developed alongside Waikato-Tainui immediately came into play when the remains were uncovered.   
“Our protocols include provisions for kaitiaki (guardian) from iwi [tribes] to work on site, as needed, to monitor earthworks as they unfold. This discovery was made by the kaitiaki and the project archaeologists working alongside each other, which is exactly what should happen,” Mrs Clark says.
The area was blessed by Waikato-Tainui [the local tribe] this morning (March 30) and work has stopped in that area while archaeologists remove the remains and carry out investigations in the surrounding area. 
Mrs Clark says where possible the Transport Agency worked hard to align new highways away from any sites of significance. 
“Working with iwi and the local communities we try to identify all areas of significance before we embark on our projects. Where that is not possible archaeological investigations are undertaken at the start of any project to collect and record any history so we can make it available for all New Zealanders,” Mrs Clark says. 
“In situations like this, we also have protocols we have developed alongside iwi to ensure correct cultural processes are followed.” 
Waikato Tainui, Te Arataura Chairman Rahui Papa said the co-designed process which led to the protocols being developed makes for an easier transition to ensure the correct cultural practice is engaged. 
“The NZ Transport Agency and Waikato-Tainui will continue to work in partnership to satisfy cultural values and to complete the journey that we embarked on together,” Mr Papa says. 
Once the koiwi has been removed, examined and the site investigation are complete the koiwi [remains] will be reinterred at Taupiri Urupa by kaumatua [elders].
Are you seeing a difference? Because I certainly am. One's on the defensive, and one's proactive. Also, one's a statement that was only made after the media picked up on the issue, and the other was a standard press release created to any inform interested parties about what had occurred. That's not to say that New Zealand is some kind of utopia - they still have the same legacy as any other settler society - but when it comes to tangibly respecting their Indigenous heritage, they're light years ahead of Australia.

You can be assured there are no public servants in NSW making statements about working hard "to align new highways away from any sites of significance". We don't even recognise that Indigenous Australians have sites of significance.

In 2014, there was a backlash when then-Prime Minister Tony Abbott said that the British arrived to "nothing but bush", but essentially our society functions on this premise. It's why there's mass outrage when we're told that 'discovery' is not an acceptable term, why Indigenous heritage groups have to campaign for something that should be automatic. In another depressing incident from the last week, it's why Tony Abbott was able to publish a Quarterly essay in which one of the opening lines was "we [Australia] lack a colonial past to complicate the present", and nobody really batted an eyelid. 

No comments:

Post a Comment

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...